Are digital spaces here to stay and if they are, how do we make them as egalitarian as possible?
Digital Spaces and Education: What’s Gender Got To Do With It?
By Vanita Ganesh, Communications Officer
March 23, 2023Reading Time: 6 minutes
“I’d never seen women using a laptop in my family, so didn’t know if even girls can use a laptop. So that ‘fear’ was instilled in me and my mom that and the fear only kept increasing among the other women of the family too…”
When access to technology and digital spaces is dictated by patriarchal notions and by discrimination, do we dare dream of a digital India?
Chanchal, who works as a Champion at Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT), was one of four panelists at the Shadhika-led International Women’s Day Live ‘Please Mind The Gap: Bridging India’s Digital Divide’.
There is much written on what this ‘digital divide’ is and what needs to be done. Currently, only 38% of households in the country are ‘digitally literate’, with further gaps based on the gender and socio-economic contexts of individuals.
But where are the difficult conversations on why this exists, beyond just blaming a vague ‘patriarchal’ entity? Where is the space for folks from the frontline of this work to not just share but also celebrate their initiatives and experiences?
Shadhika has reason to pause and appreciate how far we have come in making sure education does not stop for the Shadhika Scholars, pandemic or not. Shadhika Scholars received a technology package and 100% had access to their remote classes through a cellular network or the internet. This not only meant that 99% of our Scholars stayed in school, but also that they could arrange vaccine and ration camps and delay early marriage, and all this during a deadly pandemic.
To commemorate the theme – ‘DigitALLY: Innovation and technology for gender equality on this International Women’s Day’, we hosted a panel discussion with experts from the field who have taken on the challenges of making these digital and tech spaces accessible.
We were joined by Chanchal who narrated her and her sisters’ journey of fighting to access and learn tech in order to get a job and be mobile. Priyanka, who also works at FAT as a Champion of the Collectivisation Initiative, Priti Vats, the Academic lead for Peepul’s Exemplar Schools being run in partnership with the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), and Debarati Das, who co-leads Grassroots Capacity Building at Point of View, made up the panel, alongside the host and Shadhika Board Member Ankita Jhaveri.
The conversation took the interventions designed and implemented by the panelists as the starting point to jump into the ‘why’ that fueled these solutions, the questions of scale and support, the role of family and parents, and of ‘debinarizing’ this conversation.
“So it’s really important if you want to see girls in digital spaces, because that’s their right, that we should intervene early,” said Priyanka who started the panel discussion by talking about the ‘fear’ that women and girls are forced to feel about technology. Whether it is a phone and apps or the TV remote, the panel spoke about the need to demystify ‘tech’ and to make the language we use to speak about it simple and accessible.
“It’s really important, as a starting point to these conversations, to simplify or demystify these concepts around tech, digital security, and conversations around digital rights, etc. Because marginalized communities have been so historically distanced from tech landscapes and tech-related conversations. So it is really important to present information or knowledge, in an accessible way, in local languages, in local vocabulary,” said Debarati, on what digital safety even means for different communities and why a one-size-fits-all approach will not be effective.
“The solution would be to start early,” said Priti Vats, a sentiment echoed by all the panelists. “If we want girls in STEM, the intervention should be as early as possible. If we don’t intervene early, we won’t see girls in STEM because the community we work in is a marginalized community (sic) and they have lots of boundaries for girls,” Priyanka shared, drawing from FAT programs that go to young adolescent girls in the community.
The initial step taken serves as a guiding principle for the overall approach employed and a thorough understanding of the specific areas in need of intervention is crucial. The panelists took us through what it takes to narrow the approach your intervention will take and why it is important.
“For me, three important points would be providing access early, educating them (students) on safety, and giving them that exposure for the future,” said Priti, on the approaches it took to support communities and individuals who touch many intersections. Strategic thinking in times of crisis can require a sudden pivot, depending on the situation unfolding in the field.
“During the lockdown, we weren’t able to connect with the participants. So we bought new phones and tablets for them so they could use technology and continue their education…
After giving them the phones, we felt that it wasn’t enough during the pandemic. So through different methods like screen recording and screen sharing, we could tell them how to use software like Zoom, Slack, Signal, etc. Because they were able to use this technology during the pandemic, they were able to overcome problems in their own community,” shared Priyanka on how FAT supported the program participants during the COVID crisis.
The panel was a continuous reminder of the fact that trust-based philanthropy and investing in the wisdom and innovation of grassroots leadership is the way forward. 90% of Shadhika Scholars received a technology package and 100% had access to their remote classes through a cellular network or the internet. This not only meant that 99% of our Scholars stayed in school, but also that they could arrange vaccine and ration camps and delay early marriage, and all this during a deadly pandemic.
“Change happens slowly but things will change,” Chanchal reminded us.
What we, readers, might take for granted- a rectangular piece of metal in our hands- continues to be ‘gatekept’ by patriarchal notions and other social and financial markers of exclusion.
The last few months have seen some repairs made but, what really needs to be done, and where does it need to start? Are digital spaces here to stay and if they are, how do we make them as egalitarian as possible? How do we move away from traditional decision-making tables that exclude those on the ‘margins’? Can we build a new table, piece by piece, that does not see ‘inclusion’ as a buzzword to flaunt on social media alone? The discussion picked up these questions and more.
Head to our Youtube channel for the subtitled event recording where panelists spoke about their real-time work, lived experiences, and more.
A special thank you to Ankita Jhaveri, Shadhika Board Member, for moderating the session!Read more